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Trouble in Them There Hills

Meghalaya

sunny 22 °C

The hills were on fire and my plans were up in flames also! On the 9th February my cousin Bunty showed me the newspaper headlines. I had my flight booked for Guwahati, the capital of India's biggest tea producing state - Assam. 10 days later I was due to take a sleeper train due west to Siliguri, the jumping off point for the most famous of hill stations - Darjeeling. I had dreams of trekking, sipping tea over the plantations and taking the famous steam train. Unfortunately all plans were were grounded at the station. Alas the sepratist movement in the region had been rioting, setting fire to Government buildings and calling for strike action. It is a shame really as once again the local economy will be crippled or weeks. It is also rather politically naive. A separate country would leave them being vulnerable to being invaded by the human rights dodging Chinese.

Enough politics. Never mind, my plans were redrawn and I decided to spend longer instead in the North East states, initially Meghalaya. These 8 states (if you count Sikkim) seem to have no relation to the rest of India. They originate from a different race as can be seen in their round faced Mongolian faces. They eat different food (including dog I am told), have a different religion (mainly Christian), dress differently, speak a different language and don't seem to do the Indian head wobble. Many of these states were out of bounds in the past due to guerrilla activities and tribal issues. Now they have even dropped the permit requirements for most states. So places are relatively safe if you follow advice.

The capital of Megalaya, Shillong is not the picture post card hill station that Manali or Shimla is in the North West. It is sprawling, hectic, noisy and scruffly although it has bags of character and I liked the place. Especially fascinating is the huge rabbit warren of a market. There are some great restaurants also.

After a couple of days in Shillong I took a shared taxi to what was, until recently the rainiest place in the world. However this is the dry season and I hardly saw a drop. On the road leading up to my destination Cherripungee you can see the sad effect of ruthless deforrestation and some see it turning ironically into a mountain dessert.

Bizzarely the town of Cherripungee is strewn with Presbyterian churches that were left by Welsh missionaries. Some of the tribal people where tartan. The lady I shared a taxi with also had a British connection, having lived in Birmingham for some time. She happened to be the wife of the joint Secretary of State for minority affairs. She herself is from the predominant Khasi tribe. She invited me to her family holiday place in Cherripungee for a cup of tea. Several days later I met up with her again. Only tea I assure you but I was concerned that her husbands previous post might have been minister in charge of jelously, torture and dismemberment.

Someone at the airport had given me a brochure of Cherripungee hill resort. It was really an after thought but I decided to stay. There were no rooms available but they put me in a tent for some relatively luxury camping. This resort sits 55 km from the bustle of Shillon and is at a height of 960 metres (I don't do feet sorry) Its a lovely family run low key resort, not alone and aloof. It shares a fairly broad ridge with some friendly local villages. I knew that this was a place to get my adrenalin fix. Together with a guide I did 3 consecutive challenging treks into the valley below. This meant a punishing walk back up. 2 of the walks included canyoning. In this context this is really just scrambling over rocks and bolders on the river bed. Some of the bolders seemed quite intimidating and I was reminded of the poster for the film 127 days. Fortunatley I was carrying with me my swiss army knife complete with amputation blade. The most extreme day meant wading chest deep through the river, wearing only trunks and hiking boots, my ruc sac carried above my head. One interesting feature, quite unique in the world were bridges actually made from live tree routes, that are guided by subtle use of metal cables to span over the river. Each bridge effectively takes up to 20 years to grow (if that is the right word). They are incredibly sturdy and I genuinely felt safer that using the purely wire bridges.

I only stayed for 4 nights but I could easily have stayed for 2 weeks. It wasn't just the scenery and activity it was also the people passing through that made it interested: ameteur cavers, geologists (I volunteered to get them some rocks), Italians with Anthropological interests. I also met this eccentric mono toothed British documentary maker, making a programme for Indian TV accompanied by his friend a would be Indian actor.

I was really sad to leave the place but there was more to explore. I took an overnight bus to Tura in the Garo Hills and left several hours later. I had notions of more trekking but the place just had no tourist infrastructure. Also there was no electricity in the hotel that I had just checked in to and no water. And this was probably the poshest hotel in town. Anyway - you sometimes have to just cut your losses. At least I did get a shave by a cross-eyed barber. At least there was a local microsurgeon next door.

To be continued

Posted by gavinbose 03:40 Comments (0)

Guhwaiti and Kohima

I used to be a head-hunter also

sunny 20 °C

"I have heard stories that you eat dog here". "Yes - we eat all gods creatures", replied the assistant Manager in the Nagaland hotel. I decided to go for chicken.

My aborted attempt to trek around the Garo Hills in Western Megalaya at least meant really pleasant 6 hour mini bus journey through the rolling hills, passing tiny village communities. As we drove past, wrinkled old men with beetlenut stained teeth stared at me, the only foreigner on the bus and possibly one of the only ones in the region. My destination was Guwahati, the capital of, tea producing Assam. In the early 1970's much of it was carved off to create Megalaya. Shillong used to be the capital of Assam.

Sprawling Guwahati is quite the most filthy state capital that I have seen in India (and I have visited most of them). It smells and looks like one big garbage dump The weather is relatively mild although I can imagine what it is like in the Summer. At least it gave me more impetus to leave the city to visit the state of Nagaland. I had been told that Nagaland and almost all the North East states had removed the need for a visa. Although hotels, the Assam tourist office and even the respective state websites contradicted this. A two hour round trip, fighting through the traffic to the outskirts of town took me to the Nagaland state office. Fortunately they were able to confirm that they were now a permit free zone.

Sorry Guwahati I take it all back. For half a day or so I did visit a few sites that totally redeemed the city for me and certainly made it worthwhile. An oasis of cleanliness and calm are provided by a large man made lake and small park. The 10p entrance fee somehow deters the litter droppers. Later I chartered a boat (the public one had stopped running) at sunset to the middle of the Bramaputra river to visit a temple on a Peacock Island. The city took on a new character from the Island and actually looked beautiful. The Umandir Mandir Shiva Hindu temple on a hill 8 km out of town provided an even better view the following morning. It was a Sunday and the place was teaming with worshippers. To add to the atmosphere cages of doves were dotted around as were dozens of bleating goats. I had read that these animals were ritually sacrificed. I saw a goat nibble away at a bouquet adorning a vehicle (wedding car perhaps) but did nothing to stop it. A last meal for a condemned goat! As an act of comaraderie with the goat (and because I don't like queues) I didn't follow the queue to the inner sanctum of the temple. I did however observe the crowd. It all got a bit Wickermanish when they started chanting something. I was the only foreigner there, hence standing out like a sore hoof. Time to go I think.

To escape the sacrificial onslaught, the next day I took a 6 hour train journey into Nagaland, home to a multitude of tribes, including one that apparently used to practice head-hunting. There are also a number of tribal languages, some of which do not have a written form. Indeed the official language is English. Everything is written in English and not Hindi. Most people can read but many cannot speak English. Many can speak Hindi but not read it. Confused - well I was?. For the first night I stayed in the fairly ugly commercial centre of Dimapur for 12 hours(8pm - 8am). The next morning I took a shared taxi to the Kohima, capital of Nagaland. The place is spread attractively over a number of hills. My hotel room boasted a fine view that was improved even more my the view from the rooftop. Overlooking the hotel at one side was a sports stadium on a raised plateau. It must be one of the most stunning places for a cricket match in India.

Although Kohima doesn't seem to have the poverty of some cities in India, there is also no indication of extravagence either. No fancy hotels, restaurants, boutique shops et. It is quite a perfunctionary city that is hardly touched by foreign tourists. In fact in 3 nights the only foreigner I saw was an American girl. People are certainly a bit more reserved than many Indians and seem rather shy. They are quite prepared to stare however as if I had just come off a spaceship.

No fancy food in Kohima although snails (pretty every day here) were for sale in the market and indeed I did see dog for sale in one restaurant. The nearest thing I had however to real hot dog was my glass of Lassi. Don't expect Crufts to be held here.

So it was really quite a nice change. Not really much to do other than visit an open air ethnic village museum and visit the immaculate war Cemetery. Nagaland wasn't turned into a quaint English hill station although it was pivotal in the war with the Japanese. The contribution to the allied efforts by the "brave near naked soldiers with spears" was acknowledged by the Brits in a local museum.

All over the North East states there are military check points on the road. Soldiers often nip into a cafe or a shop with a riffle over their shoulder. At first this was a bit disconcerting and then I got used to it and it became rather reassuring. There have not been any major incidents throughout the region for a number of years.

I could have been involved in a potentially embarrassing diplomatic incident at the check point going into the next North East state, Manipur. This was a refreshment and toilet stop. I needed to relieve myself as the ridiculously winding and uneven road surface (100 miles takes 6 hours) plays havoc on the bladder. I asked for directions to the loo and was given a vague turn of the head to indicate that the loo was up a flight of stairs. Someone saw me hesitating at the top and indicated left. I know it sounds stupid but toilets and urinals in India come in all shapes and sizes. I went in a small, smelly room with a narrow drainage channel at the back. Well I've used loos like that before. I made a quick retreat to see a lady hovvering outside the door, giving me a quizzical look. The next door was open, the room being identical to the one I'd been in. Only this one had a pile of washing. Oh my God - was this a laundry room and not a loo. Just in case I had caused the ultimate faux pas I left as quickly as I could, got on the bus and hid behind my rucksack. Until the bus drove off, horribly thoughts of torture and beatings were swimming through my mind. I had been reading an excellent semi autobiographical novel called Shantaram that recounts an Australians experiences in the Indian penal system. Fortunately the driver honked the horn to indicate that we were on our way to Imphal, capital of Manipur. Knife fights with the sisters in the prison laundry room were reserved for another nightmare.

Posted by gavinbose 03:08 Comments (0)

Bumpy Roads

Manipur and Assam

sunny

6 hour and a mere 142 km after leaving Kohima I was in Imphal, the capital of Manipur state. Extremely uneven road services, hairpin bends and teetering drops provides the fear jackpot for the nervous passenger.

Ater being heavily sedated to erase the terror from my face, I found a decent room in a dingy hotel, dumped my stuff and had a look around. The military presence can be felt more here than other places in the North East, although things are hopefully going to change. The state had been the victim of much insurgency. There are now plans to start to attract the tourist rupee. I visited Lotak lake 50km south of town using surprisingly fast public transport and a chartered rickshaw. Such a tranquil place although there was not another tourist in site and there probably wont be until the planned resort is built. Just small fishing villages huddled around the lake, floating 'islands' of grass and the odd fishing canoe. Oh and of course a big military base.

Imphal is fairly lively and unlike Kohima actually has electricity during the day. One big section of a very large market is run entirely by women. I had a good look around, bribing a market trader with a banana purchase and a bit a flattery to get a photo. I discovered a nice little park near the market that onto the Polo Grounds. Indeed there was a match on that I was able to see quite clearly through the railings. Before the game was adopted by toffs with double barrel names it was indeed invented in Manipur. After visiting an old fort, cum park, cum military base it was time to plan the following days horrific journey. This was the nightmare road trip that I'd made a couple of days before but with an additional 2 - 3 hours to take me again to Dimapur, capital of Nagaland.

My departure the next day (4.30 am) was from Dimapur station, the site of 2004 terrorist activity. It was also the site of a half decent nights sleep after a kindly fellow passenger had sorted out a cosy station 'hotel room' for me. So 4 hours on the train and 2 hours on a bus (mainly following tea plantations) took me to Kaziranga wildlife reserve in Assam. Kaziranga has 2/3 of the worlds population (approx 2000) of one horned white Rhinos. It also is home to Buffalo, a variety of bird-life, wild boars, wild elephants, 50 tigers and hundreds of flashing cameras. I saw all these animals on an elephant, then jeep safari, including more rhinos than I would normally see dogs in my local park. I also saw plenty of birds from the balcony at the decent Government run tourist lodge. After the mornings tour an unofficial guide took me around the local villages, that had no proper roads, electricity, not even a McDonalds.

My next stop, Tezpur fortunately had another decent room with TV in another Government lodge. I got a quick glimpse of the Bramaputra and the remains of a 9th centre temple but I wasn't in a state to do much as my bowels had let me down. So a toilet and TV day for me!. Got to see lots of familiar British programmes on discovery, National Geographic and Fox History. Lots of David Attenborough and Bear Grylls. Surely whilst dining with mountain gorilla David has had one or two Dickie (sorry to his brother's name in vain) tummys. Surely Bear Grylls, whilst munching on owl snot and millipede scrotum, has needed to quickly knock up a bamboo toilet and then use straight away?

Fortunately everything was quickly patched up and my ravenous appetite returned. I devoured a whole tandoori chicken without pausing for breath. My next destination was Majuli (pronounced exactly like Ali G's girlfriend) island. This is a 100 km long and 45km wide sandbar island on the Bramaputra. It is the worlds biggest river island. It's sparsely populated, with the 'capital' amounting to not much more than a village. There are however 20 + monasteries. The road is incredibly bumpy. Most people seem to travel on bicycles and live in Bamboo huts. The place has amazing bird-life. I stayed in a bamboo hunt next to a small pond. I could see a kingfisher diving regularly for food. Also, as with Kaziranga, you can see storks the size of pterodactyls. On a tree above one of the Satras (monasteries) they had even made nests. Looking at them I was expecting the branches to break under their weights.

The cook at the cottage had a long face like the caretaker in any episode of Scooby Do. "I would of done it if it wasn't for you pesky kids". Anyway he spoke no English. He kept asking me in Assamese if I wanted this or that. I just said yes to everything. I wish I'd said no to the ant scrotum sorbet though. He was though a good cook and kind enough to lend me his bike for the day. Farmers cultivating fields, lakes, birds, remote villages flashed before me. Once again it is not a place used to foreign tourists. I proved quite a novelty to the local population, especially a local school party. The teachers wanted to photograph me as if I was a celebrity and the local kids wanted to practice a little English. "What is your name? Where are you from How are you?" I was tempted to answer "Theobald, Maximilian Fortescue Cuthbertson. A far and distant galaxy a million light-years from here. Well now you ask I have got a bit of Amoebic dysentery". No seriously the people of Assam are some of the friendliest in India.

I better sign out and say goodbye before a powercut comes my way.

Posted by gavinbose 01:13 Comments (0)

The Road Back

Back to Kolkata

sunny

He placed his loaded gun over his shoulder for my own protection, to ensure that I didn't get hurt. My feet still ended up bloody. So what am I talking about? Well you will have to read on....

For much of my stay in Assam I had gone off personal recommendations and contacts. One very helpful chap at Kaziranga had arranged for me to stat at his friend's guesthouse in Majuli and his brothers guest house in the historical town of Sabsigar. A guy from Switzerland had mentioned a must see Gibbon reserve park near the town of Jorhat. The place doesn't even feature in my Lonely planet. He'd also recommended a decent 3 star Paradise hotel at only £6 per night B&B.

The hotel even arranged for a taxi to take me to Hollongapur Gibbon Wildlife reserve at 6am. Quite different to the grassy terrain of Kaziranga, at only 20km square, it is quite a dense jungle forest. As well as gibbons there were a variety of monkeys (including Langurs), giant squirrels, pythons. I got a guide for this on foot safari. He assured me that the gun was in case we had an encounter with wild elephants or leopards and not defending against the human insurgence type of 'guerrilla' . I was however told that one guide was killed by a leopard only the previous year. The safari lasted a good 2 1/2 years and I saw maybe 4 families of gibbons, India's only apes (as opposed to 'monkeys'). They were swinging high up on the trees in famlies of 4 or 5. The only way to observe them was to tramp through the damp undergrowth. My guide suggested at one point that I checked my feet. Immediately I noticed the blood. Yes a number of plump leeches were tucking in an all you can drink buffet on my feet and it wasn't even breakfast time.

Bordering Hollangapur are a number of villages servicing tea plantations. Like the leeches, humans were encroaching on someone else's territory. We were informed that only an hour or so ago a leopard had been found terrorising a village. This angry moggy had been restrained by a smack in the jaw with a stick. The park wardens had immediately arrived to capture the Leopard. Fortunately nobody had been hurt and the leopards wounds were only superficial. I joined the villagers who were gathered around the flimsy cage, standing way too close (striking distance) really for taking snaps.

After all this animal drama it was my chance to get a nourishing shot of history before my return to Kolkata. My next stop, Sibsigar turned out to be a very interesting leg of the journey. I chartered a taxi to visit the reminders of Ahom dynasty that probably came from Burma (or possibly Timperly) 700 + years ago. There were ancient tombs buried in mounds of earth like little hillocks. They were only discovered centuries later by the British. In addition were a number of Hindu temples, forts and a 3 tier sports pavilion. In town (there was a similar setup a few miles away) the tallest Shiva temple sat next to the shores of a massive tank ( man made lake) with a 3km perimeter. My guest house was also on the lake. The tank was irrigated 300 years ago in only 45 days. On the other side of the lake from the temple was a prison. A prisoner seemed to catch my eye as I walked pass. The front door had been opened for a split second. In my imagination he was urging me to formulate an escape plan.

My legal getaway the next day was by a flight back to Kolkata for a final few days of pampering from my family, a bit of shopping. I also checked out a decent park of London's calibre. After 14 years of going to Kolkata, also for the first time I checked out BBD square which is circled by some of the most impressive colonial building in the city. It was renamed from Dalhousie square to commemorate the initials of 3 freedom fighter/martyrs. Hidden away in a side street I also checked out an old manor house crammed full of victorian memorability.

Sadly time to say my goodbyes. I had that many presents (mainly shirts) to take back that I was given an extra bag. Food poisoning claimed my last afternoon in Kolkata but I was right for the next day. 19 hours from leaving the Kolkata house, 2 flights, 5 movies, 3 meals, 2 gin & tonics later I was back in grey cold Britain with a bag full of washing and a head full of memories.

Posted by gavinbose 06:54 Archived in India Comments (0)

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